News Analysis: Portman Group faces stern test

The drinks industry body is under pressure to prove it can regulate the industry that sustains it. Jane Simms reports.

As the alcoholic drinks industry faces up to the threat of restrictive legislation in 2007, which will be introduced if the government judges that its current system of self-regulation is ineffective, so the role of industry body the Portman Group has been called into question.

Established 10 years ago by the in-dustry, which also funds it, the body has gradually extended its remit beyond promoting responsible drinking. It now operates a code of practice, which covers the marketing, promotion and packaging of alcoholic drinks, as well as monitoring compliance by manufacturers and retailers. It also runs public-awareness campaigns and represents the interests of the industry to government, media and consumer groups.

Regulatory focus

However, critics suggest the group is spreading itself too thinly and should focus on its regulatory role, in a similar vein to the Advertising Standards Authority, and leave campaigning to the government, charities and 'social aspects organisations'. They say this would enable it to better serve the interests of the industry and address the spiralling problem of alcohol abuse.

'The Portman Group lacks teeth,' says Simon Loftus, chairman of brewer Adnams. 'We have referred a number of ads and product packs to it, which we believe contravene its code, but it has taken no action.'

Loftus believes the group's refusal to condemn anything but the most obvious breach of the rules does nothing to address what he calls 'the whole cultural drift' toward heavier drinking. 'We cannot accept anything that is even slightly irresponsible because alcohol abuse is such a serious social issue,' he says. 'The Portman Group is not tough enough.'

He claims unethical promotional activities are slipping through the net, including 'the widespread practice of scantily-clad girls dispensing promotional shots in late-night bars'.

The Portman Group contends that it does take action and that about 70 products have been withdrawn or renamed as a result. It cites the examples of the withdrawal of fcuk Spirit two years ago and Marks & Spencer's agreement to alter the packaging for its 'Love Potion' cocktail if the product is reintroduced.

Judgments are made by the group's Independent Complaints Panel, made up of people from outside the industry and chaired by Lord Condon, former commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. 'We had 11 complaints last year, of which 10 were upheld by the panel,' says communications director, Jim Minton.

If a manufacturer, subject to a complaint, refuses to withdraw or repackage the product, the Portman Group issues an 'alert bulletin', asking retailers, many of whom are signatories to the code, not to stock the item. The group has never had to use the final sanction of applying to the local licensing authority to have a retailer's licence withdrawn.

The group argues there have been few complaints because most manufacturers adhere to the code. Many use its pre-launch advice service for guidance on whether an item would breach the code.

Financial disparity

On the public-awareness front, the Portman Group's annual promotional budget is just £2m, a drop in the ocean compared with the £800m spent by the drinks industry. The group will spend about £250,000 on cinema ads this year, against the drink industry's £200m.

Minton points out that the body's recent 'Ms Jekyll or Ms Hyde?' cinema campaign, highlighting the danger of binge-drinking, was 'very well received', while its research on the link between heavy drinking and rape was covered in all the main media. A campaign breaking this autumn, meanwhile, will address binge-drinking among young men.

Over the past year, the Portman Group has also encouraged its member companies to promote its Drink Aware website, www.drinkaware.co.uk, which directs consumers to a section of its main site that offers advice on sensible drinking. 'That site gets 20,000 hits a day and every time we do an initiative you see a spike,' says Minton.

Hugh Burkitt, chief executive of The Marketing Society and a member of the Independent Complaints Panel, credits the group for the creative advertising it manages to squeeze out of a low budget, but admits it 'suffers from lack of money for promotional activity'.

Concerted strategy

More money is something for which the group has campaigned. The government's Alcohol Strategy, launched last year, proposed the setting up of a 'producers' fund', based on a contribution of 10% of drinks firms' adspend. This would be used to fund a hard-hitting, concerted and sustained ad strategy.

It is a proposal that may be resisted by the manufacturers, many of whom work independently to promote responsible drinking and marketing. 'I would be grossly offended to have to cough up 10% of our advertising budget to fund the Portman Group,' says Loftus.

Srabani Sen, chief executive of Alcohol Concern, believes advertising and public-health campaigning should be led by people with a more balanced interest, such as the government, health experts and campaigners. Benet Slay, joint managing director of Diageo GB, agrees. 'Consumers often expect hard-hitting campaigns like this to be delivered by government,' he says.

This may come to pass as the government is to draw on the Portman Group's knowledge to help it develop its first sensible-drinking campaign, due to break next year. 'We want to get to the root of the issue,' says a spokesperson for the Department of Health.

'Tackling binge-drinking needs the sort of combined and sustained effort that went into combating drink-driving,' says Adrian Botha, head of industry affairs at SABMiller. 'It needs strong enforcement and strong awareness.'

Critics say the Portman Group cannot do both. With the problems related to alcohol abuse having grown, not diminished, since its inception, it needs to focus efforts to justify its existence.

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